by Mallory Moad
What do the following have in common: An upgraded Nancy Drew, Santana, a black and white cat, and a clarinet player named Vic Ratto. I’ll give you a few minutes to think about it.
Did you figure it out? No? OK, this eclectic cast of characters has influenced, or is the product of, Jeff Bowman’s vivid imagination.
Jeff is one of those people with a multi-titled job description. He’s a story teller/film maker/writer/teacher, who is probably best known to many as a musician. An accomplished percussionist, this California native and longtime Central Valley resident has been actively involved in the Fresno music scene since he was a kid. He tells it this way: “I started playing drums at eight. My first paying gig was with a clarinet player at the Belmont Country Club when I was 11.” The clarinet player’s name was Vic Ratto, by the way. It wasn’t long before Jeff left the lounge world behind. “Rock and roll was another story,” he says, but seeing Santana play live in 1969 sparked a lifelong love for Latin music. He added congas, steel pan and marimbas to his repertoire and eventually, his expertise and reputation led to a teaching position at Fresno’s Roosevelt School of the Arts (he retired in 2014). Even if you’re a successful musician, it never hurts to have a day job.
This is the more public version of Jeff Bowman, the guy we’ve seen on stage or in the classroom. But there’s another side that is just as vibrant and dynamic. Jeff is also a film maker. He has produced a feature-length film, No Town Blues, and a number of short films. Not unlike his interest in playing percussion, this pursuit also began at an early age. “It started when my folks got me a Super-8 camera for Christmas when I was 13. I would edit my own productions and it carried through college.” Jeff suffered the tortures of questionable lighting and hand editing (“My physical edits were really bad”), and was happy to embrace the digital age as soon as it arrived. Two of his more recent works have gained recognition: Mao’s Blues Part 1 was accepted into the Hanford Film Festival in 2019 and The Rule was featured on a British website dedicated to indie films.Jeff’s most recent passion is writing graphic novels. He starts out by envisioning his stories as movies, which moves logically and smoothly into writing graphic novels. “I can’t explain how difficult it is to create an indie film,” he explains. “Perhaps that’s why I came up with my graphic novels. They might be elaborate story boards.” Here’s how it began: Jeff’s first graphic novel, How The Light Gets In, started as a film script. When he started story boarding he was struck with the idea of producing a graphic novel instead. It’s the story of a middle-aged man who feels everything has become meaningless and, by chance, meets a young girl who helps him reconnect with life. With more dialogue than most graphic novels, the connection to film is apparent. Jeff’s second graphic novel, Esperanza Wong The Mystery of the Seven Gardens, Part 1 features a character from How The Light Gets In. “I gave myself the title to see if I could shape a story around my favorite character, Esperanza Wong, a kind of Puerto Rican/Chinese Nancy Drew.” Intended for a young adult audience (his first work contains enough adult language to earn an R rating), it’s an old-school mystery with contemporary themes of friendship, loyalty, truth and perseverance. It is the first book in a projected trilogy.
Both books are illustrated with photographs that have been digitally enhanced. In How The Light Gets In, they resemble pen-and-ink drawings; in Esperanza Wong The Mystery of the Seven Gardens, a colorful watercolor effect reflects the more playful tone of the story. Similar to a director casting a film, Jeff selects specific individuals to portray the characters he has developed. “I see them in my mind’s eye and then I search through friends, artists and other folks who look like the characters. I ask if they are interested and much to my delight they usually are.” Photo shoots take place in local locations with photographer Babs Carlson, Jeff’s partner and “book writing partner in crime” capturing the scenes. Jeff compares the process to shooting a silent movie. Readers will no doubt recognize familiar faces and local landmarks, especially if you’ve lived in Fresno as long as some of us.
Another significant presence in Jeff’s life is a beautiful tuxedo cat named Blade. She was found in a National Guard helicopter when just a kitten. Jeff brought her home and gave her a three-day probation period. That was 14 years ago. “She’s enormously shy and my best friend” and would most likely be offended if not mentioned here. She is, after all, a cat.
Jeff approaches each project with joy and enthusiasm, whether it’s preparing his next book, contributing a percussion track to a colleague’s album or sharing a home recorded video on social media. His unpretentious style is a combination of personal experience, camaraderie and a whole lot of heart. It’s about friends, it’s about home, and it’s about sharing the love of a good story. I’d like to hear another one, wouldn’t you?
You can see some of Jeff Bowman’s films on his YouTube channels, BowKay Productions and Jeff Bowman. Esperanza Wong The Mystery of the Seven Gardens is available at Heroes Comics and the gift shop at Gazebo Gardens in Fresno.
My name is Mallory Moad I believe good stories can make these uncertain times just a little less trying.